Seeing Anthropologies of Art at FRIEZE NY Art show 2015


“I view art as a system of action, intended to change the world rather than encode symbolic propositions about it.”

Alfred Gell, Art and Agency

In a 2014 lecture titled “Contemporary art: considered philosophically and poetologically”  the eminent French philosopher Alain Badiou set out some propositions as regards the meaning of “contemporary” in contemporary art. In somewhat philosophical jargon, he first referred to contemporary art as being “an immanent rupture inside of modernity.” Later on in the lecture, we understand what is meant by “rupture” to be the critical component that contemporary art has: “contemporary art is a critical art.” And further along, Badiou exalts this critical component  all the way to the point of  claiming that  contemporary art is  able to subsume the old rules, ways, and times, and launch into/ deploy  “new rules, new geometry, new algorithms, new rhythms, new materials” to be used “in the service of new manners of contemplation.” A tall order to fulfill, but at the end of it all what is key in Badiou’s purview of contemporary art  are moments where “we see our world in the mirror with its mixture of horror and beauty, order and trash, freedom and obedience.” One only need to think of the work of  Giacometti to think through the sepulchral aspect of an art object coupled with its critical gaze back towards its viewer.

For many in the present art world, there is a “feeling” of this kind of moment in the air, as if a kind of noosphere is hanging light and translucent above, even above the larger money game. [1] Badiou further explained the larger period within which “our contemporaneity” lies, that is modernity;  modernity and this larger time period under which we are said to be living is “not a structure but a very long historical stage of the global history of art.” So there we have our present time (of art) as a critical one, and one couched within a global history which can guide that critical component.




Fast forward to New York’s recent Frieze New York Art Show and there you have a glowing representation of such work, and in fact a representation that might even go further than just the critical, into a kind of anthropological approach/turn  in present art practice.  This year’s Frieze New York Art Show, whose status has grown to being considered by many insiders to be the most serious art fair in New York, was a show whose critical perspective looked through the lens of the entire globe and not just through one particular set of lenses. As the Martiniquan poet Edouard Glissant often mentioned, “the West is not a place but a project,” and the look away from  the lens of just  this “project”, and the viewing through a multivariate set of lenses and ruptures (if you will) across our own period has seemed to finally become, not just a fashionable art world trend, but a very genuinely proposed way of seeing. We are genuinely beginning to see the “infinite possibilites”[2] that lie within horizons of the art world, once that larger dialogue about modernity becomes a constant marker of our contemporary moment. The Frieze New York Art Fair was a great lesson and marker of Badiou’s “global history of art.” Of course, the Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor’s magnificent stewardship of the Venice Biennale, opening a week before Frieze New York,  had already set the stage for such a “global history of art.”  As Enwezor has so eloquently said of the object of this year’s Venice Biennale, “ All the World’s Futures”[3] (as) a project devoted ‘to a fresh appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things.’ ”  And the shadow of such a reappraisal could be felt at this year’s Frieze NY.

The general “temperature” of NY’s art world at this moment is quite evidently within such a similar fervour (and historicity) with artists like the Pakistan-born Huma Bhabha’[4] (whose show opened at Salon 94 gallery during the week of the Frieze show) and young Greek painters like Despina Stokou and Jannis Varelas,  whom this author discovered at the private collection of  Susan and Michel Hort[5] , on public view during the weekend of Frieze NY Art Fair. Stokou’s black and white large-scale paintings evoke a tableau of  mysterious equations of a not yet existent civilization  or one that came before, while Varelas’s magnificent large scale works breathe life into representing new kinds of automaton/ titan/  animal/ hybrids/ gods. They were showing at Frieze also. Their compatriot Panos Tsagaris (whose work was just recently bought by the Hort Collection), recently featured at the ARMORY Show, also shares similar interests in the inchoate space between human(language) and something else, formally exploring complex  Western systems of mystical thinking and practice in painting and performances.


Kara Walker’s Cave for the Instruction of Men 2014

The African-American artist Kara Walker’s Cave for the Exhibition of Men could perhaps provide a center piece for looking at this year’s Frieze, as it sat quite prominently and grandiosely at blue chip London Gallery Victoria Miro surrounded by the work of Isaac Julien, Chris Ofili, and Sarah Sze. It was definitely one of those pieces many visitors stopped before, almost like paying homage to a kind of  sacred artifact at an altar. And to be sure, this is what Kara Walker’s work has become, especially within the context of global movements that have already set alight suppressed histories. Walker’s work now takes its place within a growing context of more open talk of the histories of the enslavement of people of African descent in the Americas, but also within a larger open avail (of talk) of the broader history of the nations and the more general games of pantomime, subterfuge, and population control[6]. It is now hard to just walk by work of Kara Walker’s and not feel the more entire range of haunting her work figuratively shows. A full-lipped African American woman barely blows out a candle as a floating fairy gets stymied by her breath. Below them, a young girl holding a flower looks up at a mysterious man with a hoop and a blade. In the next panel, a woman scolds, holds back or protects her children (we cannot be sure). (One could equally see Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye or Lautreamont’s Maldoror).  Above the woman and her children a frenzy takes place of a woman whipping her child or the air (we cannot be sure). And in the final panel, a mistress, perhaps a slave mistress, drops a bonbon, as a young black boy stands below mouth agape. A woman sits in a chair above them, in grief or contemplation, or both. A family which has run away or are lost, in the background, is outside the cave. Walker establishes this silhouette of not just a particular time but of the whole human condition– issues of inertia, atrophy, vulnerability, innocence, experience, phantasy, domination, obedience,and revolt: a cave for the exhibition of men, as she properly titles it.  Walker’s work has slowly “grown into being” (or accepted as being)  (or perhaps has always been but we did not see it), a kind of contemporary Goya.

It might be appropriate to place Kara Walker’s Cave for the Exhibition of Men next to another monumental work center piece in considering this year’s Frieze. They could flank each other on either side as sort of representative of the moment Frieze has on  view this year. The other work that could be the opposite center piece for this year’s Frieze could be one of Giuseppe Penone’s several wall-size and long installation paintings,  Respirare l’ombra (2008), “a wall of fragrant dried bay leaves, along with tree-bark rubbings, tree trunk carvings” (Telegraph UK). Penone’s work, again the size of a gallery wall, with mesh-enclosing leaves and branches (metallic wire, laurel leaves, bronze, and variable elements) grouped together into almost 40 compartments and joined together as an arte povera painting, was monumental, but moreover was one of those works of art that impress not just based on its aestheticism but also on the sheer thought of how could such a feverous dream be accomplished. So, on the one hand, we have Walker’s Cave for the Exhibition of Man and Penone’s Respirare l’ombra , both properly placed pieces to fit inside  a musée imaginaire, as Andre Malraux referred to the proposition of having a museum without walls: “ the musée imaginaire is our imaginary collection of all the works, both inside and outside art museums, that we today regard as important works of art.”   Monuments (sculptures. paintings), objects, talismans, actions (performances) which properly invoke a global history of art, all not only  within just the realm of art but that can be also be considered from the standpoint of a  kind of  anthropology of art.

This was some of the view of  this year’s Frieze New York with the critical component mirroring a “mixture of horror and beauty, order and trash, freedom and obedience” and at times “offering new manners of contemplation.”  Both the Walker and Penone piece had aspects of being sepulchers or at the least destinations for some kind of contemplation, not just aesthetic destinations.

As was mentioned earlier, outside the fair, the sheer presence of the Pakistani painter, sculptor, photographer Huma Bhabha, with a newly opening big show, also set the very general sense of the temperature during this late spring New York Art week. As the writer Thomas McEvilley has said of Huma Bhabha’s work,  and which may also be indicative of a kind  of moment in contemporary art right now[7]: “The difficult approach to the future…leads through a chain of references and visions toward a present moment from which the artist looks towards a future still withholding itself from view…The darkness of the beauty of this vista is a mark of the dimly felt meaning of the present era.”

There are also works of note and other works that fit within this writer’s particular purview at his year’s Frieze NY 2015 Art Fair:


-Philipe Pareno’s marquee and version of the firefly automaton With a Rhythmic Instinction to be Able to Travel Beyond Existing Forces of Life (2014),  Pilar Corrias Gallery

-Rashid Johnson, I’ve Known Rivers

-Ibrahim El Salahi, Vigo Gallery, London

-Spencer Sweeney,  Gavin Brown Enterprises, NY

-Sergio Zevallos, Livia Benavides Gallery, Lima Peru

-Aaajiao leo Xu,  Projects Shanghai

-Martha Araüjo- Galeria Jacqueline Martins, Maceio Brazil

-Sarnath Banerjee, Project 88, Mumbai

-Martin Wong, PPOW Gallery, NY

-Kris Lemsalu, Teminkova & Kasela, Estonia

-Portia Zvavahera, Stevenson Gallery, Capetown/ Johannesburg South Africa

-Richard Prince, Gagosian Gallery, NY

-Natalia LL, Lokal Gallery, Warsaw Poland

-Carolee Schneeman, Hales Gallery, London

-Rasheed Araeen, Aicon Gallery, NY/London

Than Hussein Clark Mathew Gallery

Greta Bratescu 1926 Ivan Gallery Bucharest

Maria Nepomuceno, A Gentil Carioca Rio De Janeiro

Cécile B Evans, Barbara Seiler Gallery, Zurich Switzerland

Amir Nave, Somner Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv


There were also other artists: William Kentridge, Roberto Cuoughi, Samara Golden underground installation, Kara Walker at Sikkema Jenkins, George Grosz, David Wojnarowicz at PPOW, Franz West, Alfredo Jaar, Philomena Pirecki at Supplement London, Ryan Mosley (Distant Ancestor), Wangechi Mutu

And I discovered interesting new galleries: Instituto Vision Bogota, Gallery Jocelyn Wolf Paris, Clearing Gallery Brooklyn, Galeria Forts Vilaca Sao Paulo, Galeria Elba Benitez, Antenna Space, The Breeder Athens Greece, Mendes Wood Sao Paulo




[1] Hugely successful and heroic contemporary artists like Rikrit Tiravanija and his “art of building community” through community art experiments might be characteristic of that feeling and of that “noosphere”.



[3] This is the title of this year’s Venice BIennale.

[4] Huma Bhabha is also presently one of few if not the only artist featured in two sections of the prestigious Venice Biennale, the Giardini and in the Arsenale.

[5] PANOS featured in the MENEM of the armory

[6] From the critical writings of Chris Hedges to PBS’ The Dark Side, the story of Dick Cheny and the CIA, Jeremy Scahill’s Oscar nominated Dirty Wars to films like Joshua Oppenheimer’s Look of Silence  to movements like Occupy Wall street and Black Lives Matters, and Oscar winners such as Citizenfour and Inside Job.

[7] George Steiner  speaks  of the constant call to name a particular moment as being the only indubitably attached to a particular thematic , “here have been previous senses of ending and fascinations with sundown in western culture. Philosophic witness, the arts, historians of feeling, report on ‘closing-times in the gardens of the west’ during the crises of the Roman imperial order, during the apocalyptic fears at the approach of the first millennium AD, in the wake of the Black Death and the Thirty Years’ War”. Grammars of Creation



James Oscar studied closely under the Martiniquan poet Edouard Glissant. He has published as a poet Perch at Black Night, Pegasus Press 2009, Notes for the White Arboreal, 5X8 Press 2014, The Horns of Moses, Magenta Press 2014. His work surrounds poetics, anthropology, and issues of "post" nation.